Even Segar didn’t understand what he had on his hands in this character. Reader response drove Popeye’s permanent addition to the Theatre cast, which had been centered on the self-absorbed, cranky, acquisitive Oyls and family friend Ham Gravy. The strip, already a decade old, had already shifted to lengthy, outlandish;y imaginative adventures. But Popeye introduced a new moral steadfast hero to Segar’s satire and seemed to fuel his absurdist imagination, culminating in masterful extended arcs like Plunder Island.
Many have said before me that we are enjoying the golden era of comics reprints.
Perhaps. My default position is from a broader historical perspective, and myself having gathered many volumes since the early 1970s. As I look over the shelves here at decades of accumulation in the Panels and Prose library, it seems to me we are in the latest surge of publishing activity that goes back at least five decades. I still have some of the early retrospectives of Dick Tracy, Buck Rogers, EC Comics, Pogo, Bill Mauldin, Winsor McCay, Happy Hooligan, Flash Gordon and more going back many decades. In my recollection, the underground comic artists of the late 1960s helped spark more serious consideration of comic strip history, leading to many of the 70s and 80s reprints. And, of course, we can’t overstate the importance of Bill Blackbeard’s personal effort to rescue that history and kindle so much interest in his landmark 1977 Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics. Publishers like Hyperion, Bonanza, NBM, Nostalgia Press, Blackthorne, Pacific and others pioneered the extensive reprinting of comics greats.
But we are enjoying an embarrassment of riches from the likes of IDW/Library of American Comics, Fantagraphics, Drawn & Quarterly, Hermes and Titan, to name just some. It is hard to keep up, and I can’t pretend being able to track, let alone, afford all that is available in the market. The curation policy here at P&P Library is to collect more in breadth than depth. I try to collect enough samples across the many comics eras and genres so that as a cultural critic I can write responsibly about select artists and capture wider trends. But every year I try to highlight the books that I feel added most to my understanding of the comics field and industry. Here are my picks for the last year…or so.
Rebirth of The English Comic Strip
Arguably the most substantial historical contribution of the last year is David Kunzle’s majestic Rebirth of the English Comic Strip: A Kaleidoscope, 1847-1870 (University Press of Mississippi). He unearths some of the great and under appreciated cartoonists of the UK humor magazines during that genre’s heyday in the mid-Nineteenth Century. In some ways an historical follow-up to his book on the previous age’s great caricaturist Rodolphe Topffer, the University of California art history scholar argues that this mid-century period represented a rebirth and establishment of the modern cartoon arts in the pages of Punch and elsewhere. He gives us both the rich context of British humor magazines in the era and their emerging lower-middle-class readers. He then does closer readings of about a half dozen exemplars like George Cruikshank, John Tenniel, John Leech and Richard Doyle (above). Kunzle’s writing is uneven. His penchant for long sentences, commas, clauses and asides, can be trying. His knowledge of the field and this historical context of the rise of comic strips is boundless, however. But best of all, this exceptionally produced tome bulges with extensive reprints. The paper and print quality are up to the task of rendering the era’s finely engraved line work in sharp relief. Kunzel’s is the indispensible comic history book of the past year.
About Time: Rediscovering Black Cartoonists
An invaluable trio of books this year started to address a woeful blind spot in American comics history, the contributions of Black artists to the growth of the field. Ken Quattro’s Invisible Men: The Trailblazing Black Artists of Comic Books (Yoe Books), Dan Nadel’s It’s Life As I See It: Black Cartoonists in Chicago, 1940-1980 (New York Review Comics) and Rebecca Wanzo’s The Content of Our Caricature: African American Comic Art and Political Belonging (NYU Press) each fill in different aspects of this ignored history. I covered Quattro’s book in my previous roundup. He focuses on unrecognized comic book artists, but a number of his cast, like Jay (Bungleton Green) Jackson and Adolphe (Sally the Sleuth) Barreax had their roots in Black newspapers and the pulp magazines.
Wanzo’s is an academic exploration of the uses of Black caricature going back to slave depictions through superheroes. She pulls apart in detail the ways in which visual tropes emerged for Black men, women, children and families that served to marginalize them politically and socially in both subtle and grotesquely obvious ways. She spends much of her time focusing on Black artists and the ways some appropriated and perpetuated these visual themes, while others took creative control of them. The book is especially effective at thinking differently about the topic of stereotype and seeing it as both a bludgeon and a tool.
For comic strip reprint fans, however, Nadel’s collection is the must-get in this welcome trio. He gives us some of the biggest tranches of work from the great Black newspapers and magazines ever reprinted. Jackson’s wildly provocative time travel episode of Bungleton Green is mind boggling. The Jackie Ormes episodes of Patt-Jo ‘n’ Ginger really underscore her wit. And the reprinted selections from Tom Floyd’s 1969 workplace send up of white notions of “integration” (“Integration Is a Bitch!” above) really drive home how much of American cultural history we missed by overlooking this history for so long. My hope is that this is just a start. Nancy Goldstein’s bio of Jackie Ormes is now out in paperback and has a generous selection from the First Lady of Black cartoonists. But I would love to see a retrospective of Bungleton Green sometime soon.
Trots and Bonnie/The Appletons
In my formative years of comics appreciation (early 1970s) National Lampoon’s comics section was nothing less than a revelation. Gahan Wilson’s Nuts, Vaughn Bode’s Cheech Wizard, Bobby London’s Dirty Duck, B. K. Taylor’s The Appletons, and anything by Rick Geary, Stan Mack and Charles Rodrigues truly blew this kid’s mind wide open to the possibilities of the form. But no one jangled my adolescent male sensibilities as much as Shary Flenniken’s truly pioneering Trots and Bonnie. The adolescent innocent Bonnie, her wry and ironic pup Trots and totally liberated friend Pepsi decimated my suburban 70s notion of feminine propriety, in the best ways. Flenniken’s candor about the female body, resentment of the patriarchy, and dark, dark sense of humor put nothing off limits. And her fine, controlled line work, thoughtful panel compositions only amplified the satire through contrast. A scathing humorous sensibility had the look and feel of children’s book illustrations and it is finally collected with the size and precision it deserves in New York Review Comics’ Trots and Bonnie. B.K. Taylor’s Appletons and Timberland Tales followed a similar rule of contrasts. He cloaked his descent into the perverse, murderous, incestuous vision of American family in cartoony stylings of apple-cheeked, smiley happy characters. Think Mark Trail meets… . Well, hell, I am not sure I can come up with an analogue for Taylor’s ink black perversity. Buckle up, because this year’s I Think He’s Crazy: The Comics of B.K. Taylor (Fantagraphics) is a twisted ride.
Like Krazy Kat, Little Nemo, Terry and the Pirates, Dick Tracy and Li’l Abner, E.C. Segar’s Popeye/Thimble Theatre has long been recognized among the pantheon, and so it has been reprinted several times over the last decades. A decade ago, Fantagraphics finished a six volume compendium of all Popeye-era dailies and Sundays in oversized formats with generous supporting material. With Popeye Volume 1: Olive Oyl and Her Sweety (Fantagraphics) the publisher shrinks the format, scope and price into a manageable paperback of just the Sundays. It has an imaginative slipcase design with cutout. But most of all it makes those wonderful color weeklies more accessible. Segar maintained a separate storyline in the Sundays, which usually used larger panels and more action. In this first volume we get both the early romance between Popeye and Olive as well as an extended story about Popeye’s short boxing career. Whether with words, schemes or fists, Segar had a pugilistic vision of human relations that comes through no matter the scenario. For those who already have the last reprinting, this series is unnecessary. But it is well worth the affordable price to anyone else.
Hank Ketcham made it look so easy…and that was the trick. His loose, thick cartoony line seemed to skate across the page. A Dennis the Menace daily feels so comfortable and easy to take in at a glance, as if we are in the flow of Ketcham’s relaxed line. And his imagery is equally easy, almost as abstract as a UPA cartoon (Gerald McBoing Boing, Mr. MaGoo). But unlike the jazzy cartoon aesthetic of the 50s, Dennis the Menace was firmly situated, perhaps petrified, in the iconography post-WWII white suburbia. And Ketcham himself said he aspired for his art not to call attention to itself and almost look not there.
But of course, this kind of easy transparent style was the result of tremendous skill and care. Take for instance this otherwise anodyne daily of Dennis making yet another disastrous assault on his perennial target, the cookie jar. Ketchum’s loose, flowing pen line was much admired by fellow cartoonists because it was at once light in spirit and cartoony but also controlled and precise. He credits Noel Sickles with teaching him how to use a pen more like a brush and relax his line so it seemed to flow so effortlessly.
Consider the sheer economy of this scene, how so few lines establish his figures and setting. He establishes his modern suburban kitchen setting with such selective specificity – refrigerator and cabinet handles are sparse and abstract, but the three storage jars on the counter embody the post-war mid-century modern style. And yet the broken cookie jar is detailed and minute, pulling the eye to the center of the chaos.
I have read some fellow artists praise Ketcham’s mastery of drapery, and here is a great example of using that detail to carry the weight of mother Alice’s reaction. Henry and Alice Mitchell only speak for themselves on occasion in Dennisworld. Most often they are reacting graphically to Dennis’s transgressions in minute details – the positioning of an eyebrow line, body posture, slightly splayed feet. In this panel, we don’t even need Alice’s facial expression to complete the scene. Ketcham positions us at kid level and uses the drape of her skirt and flying kerchief to render the reaction shot.
Hank Ketcham mapped mid-century American suburbia so simply and beautifully. He was a perfectionist with establishing perspective that made you part of the scene. In this early 50s panel, his composition and staging of characters is everything. It establishes the dynamic among characters and separates Dennis from the group in just the way he is emotionally. And Ketcham’s Disney training comes through in the ways each of the adults is animated and characterized individually. Every person in the scene is laughing in a particular way that suggests their own character and backstory. And it was all told visually with that signature loose and flowing pen work that makes a well-planned panel feel effortless. No wonder so many of his contemporaries envied his artistry.
Perspective was critical to Ketcham. He often finds ways to place us in the scene that also involves us in the flow of the action or in relation to a character’s perspective. The panel above underscores his thoughtful use of point of view to heighten meaning. Here Dennis and the gang’s boyish conspiracy feels more intense, intimate, secretive by being set back from the action.
The aesthetic of Dennis the Menace is centered in the brilliant design of Dennis himself of course. First it is important note that Dennis is impossibly small. Compared to the adults around him, this five-year-old is considerably smaller than his age, barely reaches the knees of his distinctly lanky parents. His bunched, oversized coveralls keep him even more grounded and often give him the appearance of a cannonball in motion.. Dennis rarely trips, falls or loses control. It is the physical and human world around Dennis that loses its footing. Adults grimace, recoil in shock or just scatter and lie akimbo in his wake. Ketcham describes Dennis as innocent. But the power of this strip is the way Ketcham embodies that innocence visually. Dennis is pure innocent determination embodied in physics. Either his low center of gravity keeps him steadfast in his attitude or momentum expresses the conviction of his chase or escape.
In earlier stints at the Lantz and Disney animation studios, Ketcham absorbed his strong sense of animated motion and rich characterization. But he also found at Disney and his work on many Donald Duck shorts the visual model for Dennis himself. With his butt sticking out, legs angled back to balance a cantilevered belly out front, Ketcham describes Dennis in one of his model sheets as “not unlike D. Duck.”
Nudism is one of Dennis’s favored modes of expression…and Kaetcham’s. He flees his dreaded bath by careening bare-assed and in flight into the neighborhood. He is not just unselfconscious but truly free. When he stands principled against clothing, butt to the viewer, the open arms and declarative mouth dramatize obliviousness, not shame. The otherwise buttoned down Ketcham somehow finds in nude Dennis a way to celebrate visually a sense of liberation in nakedness that in an unlikely way anticipates counter-cultural ideas a decade in advance.
Which is to say that Dennis the Menace exemplifies what makes the comic strip medium distinct. In its best hands, cartooning is not just an illustrated or dramatized punch line. The artwork embodies and deepens the meaning of the idea.
I posted a lot this past year and attracted thousands of new visitors along the way. And so as the year ends I wanted to surface some of the most popular items of the past year that might be of interest to newer readers of the blog.
”Moon Mullins on the Margins” was the most-read post this year, and it was part of a mini project exploring several comics characters on the edge of social respectability that flourished in the 1920s. Frank Willard’s deft touch with comic timing and raw flurries of insults and put-downs really impressed me this time through just a sampling of his work. I wish more of his strips were available in reprint. I used this old short edition, which is still available from used booksellers.
Likewise, the piece on Mutt first meeting Jeff in 1908 explored how the acerbic relationship between these two scallawags grew. Bud Fisher used this scheming duo to take aim at social and political trends, and could be suprisingly edgy. In one case they plotted to dodge the draft for WWI. Mutt and Jeff is another classic that could use a reprint. The most recent one, which I used for this post, was part of NBM’s Screwball reprints in 2007, still available, however.
Maurice Ketten’s short-lived ”Hurry-Up New Yorker” series in 1906 for The New York World was a wonderful find for me this year, as it seemed to be for many of you. Ketten’s modernist style embodied the theme of this strip and was among many visually interesting takes on the new urban environment in the comics pages. And to get on my hobby horse again, I think this very theme of urban change is one of those places where the American comics distinguished itself in Americasn culture. Few other popular or high art forms were capturing the new experience of urban environments as richly and as consistently as comics artists.
Discovering the wondrous Nell Brinkley was one of the highlights of my comics journey this year. She was a trailblazer in so many ways. Her heroines were flapper feminists, and her ideal of modern femininity replaced the Gibson Girl with that Brinkley Girl. I discovered Brinkley in my favorite book of last year, Trina Robbins’s ”Flapper Queens,” which I can’t recommend enough. Still widely available at a good price for the size, quality and scope of this look at several of the most popular women cartoonists of the 1920s.
The idiosyncratic style and worldview of comics strips is one of my main attractions to the form, and I got to revisit two of my favorite extremists of the form this year. The cranky Harold Gray’s populist vision of humanity and society in Little Orphan Annie was established in every aspect of the strip’s plainspoken art style, plotting and characterization. Human character was the real subject of the strip. And to this day I find no cartoonist more compelling and absorbing than Chester Gould. As the Library of American Comics wound down its massive 29 volume reprinting of Dick Tracy, it gave me an excuse to come at the strip from several angles, all compiled here. I especially enjoyed reviewing the many ways Gould doled out retributive justice in the grisly ends to his gruesome villains.
Looking forward to 2022 here at Panels & Prose, I have some thoughts on Hank Ketcham and Dennis the Menace on deck. I’d like to dig into The Bungle Family, especially if I can get hold of more dailies than are reprinted in the indispensable LOAC Essentials volume. Tuthill’s was a uniquely dark vision of 1920s family and social dynamics. Similarly, I don’t think E.C. Segar’s Thimble Theatre both before and after Popeye’s arrival, for its highly critical view of modern American character and acquisitiveness. As Fantagraphics starts reprinting the Sunday Popeyes, it makes a fine occasion to revisit the contentious Oil clan and its many machinations.
Also I hope to enrich Panels & Prose with some more forays into the larger reach of comic strip media in American culture. The many film and radio serials inspired by comics series, as well as the invention of the situation comedy itself, all beg for greater scrutiny. Finally, I also hope to step up my postings about new books of special interest to comic strip fans. There are so many resources online aimed at comic book collectors, but no one I have seen is focusing on what is new and available during this new golden age of comic strip reprints.
Many thanks to all of you who have been reading my musings this year.
Hank Ketcham says he always found it odd that he spent his life in service to a five year old. But of course Dennis the Menace was never for kids, really. At his best, Ketcham used Dennis as a device for poking gently – ever so gently- at the straitjacket of post-WWII suburban repression and painful social self-consciousness. And Ketcham himself was as straight laced, conventional and revenant as we imagine the Mitchells and their world to be. How else could such a pint-sized hellion find so many lines of propriety to transgress so habitually?
Ketcham’s breathtaking tone deafness to the songs of change singing around him in the 60s especially would surface in a famous episode we will save for another post. But for now let’s enjoy Ketcham at his cleverest, usually in the 1950s, using Dennis as a wry observer of pre-feminist gender typing.